More mountain bike trails in National Parks?

bushwithbike copyWhen speaking about the responsibilities of being President, George W. Bush once said:

“You never escape the presidency; it travels with you everywhere you go. And there’s not a moment where you don’t think about being president. Unless you’re riding mountain bikes as hard as you possibly can, trying to forget for the moment.”

While it is well known that W. has long been an avid mountain biker, one of the last moves made by his administration before leaving office in January was an unexpected access mandate for mountain biking opportunities across the U.S. The proposal is to allow for the National Park Service to make decisions about opening up trails in parks to be left to park managers, instead of leaving the decision to regulators in Washington, the latter being a process that can usually take years. If adopted, the proposal will most likely result in more mountain biking opportunities on public lands. While the period for public comment on the intitiative expired on February 17th, Outdoor Utah presents two opposing views on the debate here. The question posed: “Do you support the proposed rule change which will make it easier for parks to open trails for mountain biking?”


Mountain bikes do not belong in National Parks

By Bill Wade

The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, consisting of over 700 members with over 21,500 accumulated years of experience managing national parks and their programs does not support the National Park Service’s attempts to amend regulations for allowing bicycle use on national park lands, as the proposed rule is currently written.

While we completely support human-powered modes of transportation in national parks, including bicycles, we believe this proposed rule is flawed in several ways and could become the “camel’s nose under the tent” relative to further expansion of mechanized vehicles in national parks.

We agree that bicycles are appropriate on roads, including some administrative roads. However, the mountain biking enthusiasts are pushing for authorization to bike on single-track trails in the backcountry. As the NPS management policies recognize, preserving the aesthetic values of a backcountry experience is as important as protecting natural and cultural resources. Unfortunately, biking – especially of a “thrill-seeking” nature, which many mountain bikers pursue – if introduced onto backcountry trails, often can dramatically change the experience for non-mechanized visitors. There is a reason why most communities don’t allow bicycles on sidewalks – bikes and pedestrians don’t mix very well.

Moreover, the Wilderness Act of 1964 established a process for protecting areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” (16 U.S.C. § 1131(c)). To protect the primitive nature of wilderness, the use of mechanical transport (or other signs of man’s footprint, including roads and structures) is prohibited in these areas. (16 U.S.C. § 1133(c)). Thus, the proposed rule properly prohibits “possessing a bicycle in a wilderness area established by federal statute.” However, nothing in the proposed rule prevents the use of bikes in areas recommended by NPS for wilderness protection.

The National Park Service has a continuing obligation under the Wilderness Act to conduct studies to determine what lands under its control are suitable for wilderness protection, and to recommend such potential wilderness areas to the President. Currently, there are 26 million acres of eligible wilderness lands in 38 National Parks. The proposed rule would accelerate the process for introducing bicycle use on existing trails in these wild areas, potentially making them unsuitable for formal wilderness designation. This is contrary to the NPS Management Policies, which provide that “the National Park Service will take no action that would diminish the wilderness eligibility of an area possessing wilderness characteristics…”

Instead of the rulemaking process that has been in effect for years, in NPS’s proposed rule, existing backcountry trails would be opened up for bicycle use after completion of an environmental assessment, a superintendent determination, and a “park planning document addressing bike use on existing trails.” While we agree that user conflict can be minimized through comprehensive recreation planning, few parks have engaged in such a process and there are no existing NPS planning standards for development of such plans. Additionally, the proposed rule does not require comprehensive recreation planning.

Whether or not bicycle use is an appropriate activity in a unit of the National Park System should be considered through an individual park planning process that involves environmental compliance and input from the public. In addition, any particular trail use should be considered as part of a comprehensive plan for managing the resources and visitor enjoyment in a park area.

biketrail copyPerhaps most important is the notion that national parks cannot be all things to all people. There are hundreds of thousands of acres and thousands of miles of trails open to biking on many public lands throughout this nation. While national parks certainly belong to everyone, Americans have always held national parks to be special. Sometimes, some uses that are appropriate elsewhere must be limited or prohibited in order to retain the special character of national parks. That is why we have opposed this proposed rule and similar efforts over the past several years that would allow for an increase in snowmobiles, off highway vehicles and personal water craft in units of the National Park System.

Perhaps a former National Park Service Director (Newton B. Drury 1940-1951) said it best:  “If we are going to succeed in preserving the greatness of the national parks, they must be held inviolate. They represent the last stands of primitive America. If we are going to whittle away at them we should recognize, at the very beginning, that all such whittlings are cumulative, and that the end result will be mediocrity.”

Allowing a proliferation of bicycles beyond the developed areas in national parks would just whittle away a bit more of the specialness of national parks.

Bill Wade is the Chair of the Executive Council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. He served 32 years in 10 different NPS assignments. Prior to retirement, he spent 9 years as Superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, VA.


Why the National Park Service Should Change Regulations for Opening Trails to Bicycling

By Mark Eller

The National Park Service (NPS) should streamline its rules so that park superintendents can more easily open trails to bicycles on the land they manage. Currently, the process is needlessly lengthy and duplicative, requiring years of paperwork, review and written approval — twice, in fact — from the NPS Director and Assistant Secretary of Fish Wildlife and Parks.

This current burdensome process acts as a disincentive for parks to properly document their trails. An outdated regulation, 36 CFR 4.30(b), was incorporated in the early 1980s and doesn’t reflect current best practices for mountain bike management. In essence, it treats mountain biking as a high-impact activity similar to motorized traffic.

In recent years the NPS has conducted scientific reviews of the impacts associated with mountain biking and concluded that the effects are similar to those of hiking and horse travel. It’s high time that the guidelines for adopting trails reflect that knowledge.

Mountain biking can play a positive role in national parks — there are dozens of on-the-ground success stories back this claim. Currently, about 20 national parks offer mountain biking on narrow dirt trails and another 20 allow riding on dirt roads. In Utah, Canyonlands National Park boasts the White Rim trail, an epic ride of more than 100 miles. Visitors from all around the globe travel to experience this impressive trail on bicycles.

Some of the groups that oppose the proposed rule change have published erroneous reports about what the new system will achieve. Here’s a review of some key points:

•A rule change will not diminish protections that ensure appropriate trail use. All regular NPS regulations, General Management Planning (GMP) processes still apply. So do the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Absolutely no environmental processes will be shortchanged, and the public will still have ample opportunity to comment on trails that are being considered for shared-use status.

•The current system is not working. Most NPS units are unwilling to undertake the time-consuming special regulations process, and thus bicycling opportunities are in this state of limbo and can’t be fully embraced. Mountain biking needs to be managed better and the process to incorporate cycling needs to be clear.

•Changing 36 CFR 4.30(b) won’t change Wilderness or Wilderness Study Area regulations in any way. Mountain bikes will continue to be banned from these areas.

•NPS units that are not interested in expanding opportunities for bicycling will not be affected. Changing the rule will not force mountain biking on any park unit, and superintendents that do not see opportunities for mountain biking in their parks will not be asked to adopt it.

•The use of special regulations is time-consuming, costly, and duplicative. Special regulations are largely directed at motorized users, such as personal watercraft; motorboats; snowmobiles; ORVs; seaplanes; amphibious aircraft; and commercial fishing, trucking, mining, and aircraft. Once everything is done at the park level it can take-years to emerge from the Washington-based regulatory process.

•Independent scientific studies, including those conducted by the National Park Service, have shown the environmental impacts of mountain biking are similar to those of hiking and far less than other uses.

IMBA believes that national parks are better experienced on foot and by bicycle than from inside cars and RVs. Bicycling broadens the parks’ recreational offerings and helps Americans get much-needed exercise. It connects people with the natural world and is a fun, low-impact activity.

Creating opportunities for mountain biking will not diminish experiences for existing users such as hikers or equestrians. Park staff are skilled at selecting appropriate trails for shared-use trail experiences, and they are familiar with modern management techniques. IMBA has a formal partnership agreement with the NPS (in place since 2005) and can actively assist parks with the design and maintenance of trail systems.

Another advantage worth considering is that many experts feel that parks lack relevance with today’s youth. Bicycling is a great way to help kids fall in love with parks and become future stewards. According to the Outdoor Industry Foundation, bicycling is a top gateway activity that gets kids outside and ultimately interested in other activities such as hiking, camping, and fishing.

IMBA’s letter-writing campaign on this generated a huge volume of messages — more than 8,000 by our count — in favor of the proposed rule change. Our constituents are passionate about protecting the character and quality of public lands (mountain bikers perform more than one million hours of volunteer service on trails every year). We look forward to improved opportunities for mountain biking in national parks, and this rule change is a positive step forward.

Mark Eller is the Communications Director for the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA), a non-profit educational association whose mission is to create, enhance and preserve great trail experiences for mountain bikers worldwide.

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